Writing Made Easy

Did you know there is a trick to effortless writing?

Have you ever read a story that felt effortless? That flowed, felt real and natural, and just plopped you into each scene without seeming to try? There is a secret to that sort of writing. I kid you not. And I’m going to share it with you.

It’s called Study and Practice. Ha! I hear the groans. Thought you found an easy way out, eh? I’ll burst your bubble now.

To develop your voice and learn to write in a manner that comes across effortless takes diligence and time. You need to get good books on writing and grammar, go to writers’ conferences, and learn from them. You need a good critique group and a thick skin so you don’t crawl under your bed whining when they hand your masterpiece back to you with red ink dripping like blood. And you need to keep writing. And writing. And writing.

Also realize that such ‘effortless’ writing is the finished product. You don’t see the many drafts the manuscript went through and the work of writer and editor both.

Some day, I hope, I’ll have that effortless feel to my writing, but even then I won’t stop going to workshops, studying, and practicing my craft, because there’s always more to learn. I hope that’s your attitude too.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-03-14


Past Verb Tenses

keeping the past (tenses) in perspective

I am confused when it comes to the names of verb tenses. And it doesn’t help that some have more than one name. Am I going to turn this column into a grammatical nightmare? I hope not. I just want to clarify when to use which verb tense. Especially since a current trend exists that tries to eradicate all but the simple past from our writing. The logic is that ‘was’ and ‘had’ slows the action – which it can. Here’s an example (yes, I’m saddling you with more of my quickly made-up snips -– please excuse them):

He was standing on the dock, gazing out over the lake as a breeze was ruffling his skin. He was remembering a day, filled with sunshine and laughter, before the coming of The Dread.

And yes – I have read whole scenes written this way. Cleaning that snip up and making it feel more immediate and real is easy to figure out:

He stood on the dock, gazing out over the lake as a breeze ruffled his skin. He remembered a day, filled with sunshine and laughter, before the coming of The Dread.

But to eliminate all but simple past is just bad grammar. Bear with me.

Simple past tense:

She stood.
He ate breakfast.
She was grumpy.

Oh so easy! And this is the tense that one writes in when writing a story in ‘past tense.’ Hopefully.

The next tense is past progressive, or past continuous. It is used with was/were and the –ing form of the verb.

This is used to show an event or condition that happened in the past that wasn’t finished. It was continuing to happen:

He was eating breakfast as she walked into the room.

The third is past perfect. A completed action of the past. This is used with had:

He had eaten breakfast before she arrived.

So now you know the basics to combat the ‘only-simple-past’ trend. All the past verb tenses have their place. Just know when to use them.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-03-04

Pronoun/Antecedent Confusion – Who Dunnit Mysteries

Keep the mysteries in your plot, not your narrative and dialogue tags.

Pronoun/antecedent confusion is a bad boy I’m often guilty of – as my crit partners will tell you.

What in the world is that, you ask? Yeah. I didn’t know what it was called either until a crit partner used the term. All it means is that you are using too many he’s (or she’s) and your reader hasn’t a clue which he is doing what to which other he (or she).

Quickly written blatant example:

Randy took off his coat as he entered the room and saw his brother standing by the fireplace. He glared at him. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see Father, if it’s any of your business.”

He picked up his coat and tossed it at him. “It is and you aren’t welcome. I suggest you leave.”

I think you get the idea.

Use names or descriptions of the characters in place of some of the he’s or reword to get rid of some of the pronouns in your narrative, so you won’t confuse your readers. Sounds easy, huh? But we do it without thinking – we don’t realize how often we don’t use names or descriptions to keep our characters distinct in the minds of our readers.

Short, simple, to the point – and perhaps you even learned a fancy term to impress folks with your writing knowledge.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-02-16


making your characters make sense

Having some theatrical background, when I think of motivation, the first thought going through my head is ‘What is my character’s motivation?’ Writers need the same thing. What your characters do needs to make sense.

Picture this – a rich man, with all the luxuries he can imagine, finds out his best friend and wife have been carrying on, and when he confronts them, they taunt him saying he’s pathetic and that no one respects him and he can’t run his family or company with any competence. He kicks them out then decides that they’re right. No one does respect him and he can’t do anything right. And if that’s so, then he will just shun high society and his riches and live on the street. And he actually follows through with it and gives up everything. Does it make sense? Not unless there is something in the background of this man we don’t know about.

But what if that man came from a poor background, and remembers the good times despite having no money, and longs for simpler days. Yes, then we might see that he could do something like this.

Hm, as a matter of fact, I might just have made up something that will turn into a short story – but I digress.

Strive to make your characters more than one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Make them real people who react in ways that make sense. For example, sudden changes of heart that aren’t explained or shown won’t be believed. A hardened murderer who doesn’t murder when he’s supposed to, or would want to, needs a good motivation to justify it to the reader.

So get into your characters’ heads and find out what makes them tick.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-01-31

Write it Again, Sam

Welcome to the Wonderful World of (re)Writing

A writing friend IMed me not long ago to say, “I’m rewriting the rewritten rewrite of chapter 12.”
I nodded to myself. I understood.

But many newer writers don’t. Over and over I’ve heard, “But I’ve already finished the book! What do you mean I need to work on it some more?” or “But I did one rewrite! How many more will I have to do?”

There are many reasons why writers have to rewrite. Perhaps their craft isn’t as honed as it could be, so as they learn how to improve their writing, they find they have to go back and revise. Perhaps crit partners point out inconsistencies in plot. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – reason after reason.

So how many times will you have to rewrite that manuscript? I’d say don’t stop counting till you see it in print.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-01-20

Resist Repetition

Avoid overuse and repetition of words and phrases.

This is a little bit of advice I learned through one of my favorite authors. In one of her books she mentions that the protag has amber eyes. Then again and again – including more than once in a single scene. By the middle of the book I found myself grinding my teeth and grumbling, “Amber eyes. Got it.”

So here’s today’s tip. It doesn’t make an acronym that creates a word like RUE, but try to Resist Repetition.

Readers are, for the most part, savvy. Especially SF/F readers. We’re geeks. We get it. You don’t have to pound into our heads that the protag has amber eyes. Once, maybe twice in the story – but not in the same scene, please – is enough.

Related to this repetition problem is having pet phrases or words that one overuses unconsciously. A friend told me that she was irritated by a famous author who used the phrase ‘splayed fingers’ over and over in one of his novels. The trouble is, how do we avoid this if we don’t realize it? That’s where crit partners are invaluable. They’ll find those things when we skip blithely over them. Or try reading your story aloud – you’ll be surprised what will jump out at you.

And usually the offending word or phrase is a simple one. Perhaps too many people in your story grin. Or the dark hero disappears into the dark night on a dark mission. Just grab a thesaurus and find some substitutes for those overused words.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-01-05

Do You RUE?

Resisting the Urge to Explain

One of the most common sins we writers commit is explaining.

We do this in several ways. Since I already talked about attributions in my last column, I’ll begin there.

When we use attributions that explain what should be obvious from context – if we have written the scene well, we are patronizing our readers by explaining what they already know or can figure out:

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he warned.
“Why?” she inquired.

Another way we explain is by telling not showing. Don’t tell your reader the protag is nervous, show it – have her wring her hands, or have her eyes darting about, or perhaps she stutters. You want your readers to feel a part of what’s going on, not be a spectator.

This goes for dialogue as well. Beats are great for this. Consider the examples below – the first have dialogue tags and the second have beats:

#1 “You’re kidding!” she said with astonishment.
#2 Her mouth dropped open. “You’re kidding!”

#1 “Don’t think of crossing me,” he said angrily. “You’ll regret it.”
#2 “Don’t think of crossing me.” He grabbed his partner by the shirt, his teeth grinding together. “You’ll regret it.”

Finally, we explain by telling the reader by what we have already told them:

Her fingers trembled as she turned the key and she gulped as the door creaked open. She stepped forward into the darkness fearfully.

Is that last word necessary? Do we need to be told she is fearful? If we’ve written a scene well, we don’t need to tell our readers our characters are happy, disgusted, angry, or afraid. They’ll know it.

Now granted, you cannot show everything – find a balance. However, if it’s an important scene, then show.

Now get to that manuscript and RUE!

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-12-26